Raising Trouble: Pink and Blue Brains?

One of the most consistently jarring things about having a small child is how many conversations begin like this:

Another parent – often the expensively-educated New York Times-reading mother of at least one boy –will say, with the air of someone who is imparting a profoundly original thought, “You know, I always thought gender was socially constructed, but gosh, it’s just amazing how different boys and girls really are.” Her inevitable conclusion? It’s all in their intractable little natures.

Here’s my internal monologue at these moments:

Um, really? If your little boy enjoys trucks, as well as hitting other kids over the head with same, you can’t imagine any other reasons besides testosterone? And if your little girl wants to wear pink it’s just got to be those pesky double-X chromosomes. Because your friends and relations, your daycare, your playground, your nanny – and most uncomfortably, you – couldn’t possibly be part of anything so distasteful as “society.”

I’m sure your little girl is never told how pretty she is when she dresses like Ariel the Mermaid. Your little boy has never met anyone who would tell him that Dora is just for girls, or looks away uncomfortably when he pretends to breast-feed a baby doll.

Blaming biology for everything, and using it to help us dodge responsibility for changing social relationships, is all the rage.

The child-rearing advice industry doesn’t help. Just yesterday I got an email from BabyCenter.com – which has an estimated 44.8 million page views per month – telling me “How girls and boys brains are different.” BabyCenter goes on to explain that “Most experts now agree that basic biology is the main reason that boys act so ‘boyish’ and girls act so ‘girlish.’” BabyCenter explains in some detail that socialization plays a role, noting the influence of marketing and TV, but clearly sends the message that there’s a scientific consensus that it’s mostly about Mother Nature.

But that’s not so. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps found, after an exhaustive study of the subject, “surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.”

Sure, there are some biological differences between boys and girls, but we make them much bigger than they need to be. Instead of trying to challenge that, we cling to determinist pseudo-science that encourages us to roll our eyes, shrug and embrace the status quo. Let’s stop this nineteenth-century madness.

by Liza Featherstone
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Lise Eliot's work is great

I just bought <em>Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps</em> after hearing Lise Eliot speak about her work at the Gender Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College. She was wonderful, and I'm so happy now to have additional scientific references handy for when my students challenge the idea that gender is socially constructed. Lise Eliot talked about neuroplasticity, saying that our brains are shaped by what we do. Little more than core nervous system functions (such as swallowing, breathing, etc.) are "hard-wired".

I also highly recommend Janet Shibley Hyde's 2005 article, <a href="http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= Gender Similarities Hypothesis</a> [pdf]. Hyde did a meta-analysis of dozens of studies and found that with very few exceptions, women and men (and girls and boys) are far more similar than different.

Pink is for girls and blue is for boys...

And ever it was thus and ever it shall be... As the post earlier this week on the pink and blue project pointed out (http://bitchmagazine.org/post/raising-trouble-the-pink-and-blue-project), even things as supposedly innate as colour-preference are socially constructed. Otherwise, how would all those kiddies have managed to grow up acting out their correct gender back when boys were wearing pink and girls were wearing blue?

This is a debate I don't see going away anytime soon. It's so hard to separate out where society leaves off and genetics and/or biology begin. We're not born into a vacuum, and those two things are continually playing off one another. But the gendering, more than any other identity we have, starts even before we're born. I lost count of how many people told me I had to be carrying a boy when I was pregnant because the baby was kicking so much (clearly they hadn't ever met any of the women in my family!). Surprise, surprise, it was a girl. Baby girls kick too. Shocking, I know.


Thanks Elizabeth K - I just downloaded the Hyde article and look forward to reading.

Nature v Nurture forever

I like how this article points out that "both" are at work here, and I agree that most media articles that cover scientific research into the genetics versus socialization of children often simplify the issue, especially when the conclusion is "it's all biology." However, clearly this article takes a side. I would love more articles that point out biology/socialization are inseparable....in fact, that the most amazing thing about our biology is that it primes us to learn and be flexible and pick up on the social cues of our specific environments---to quickly learn to like pink if you're a girl. Also.....what's so wrong with pink? And why are we "blaming" biology? For making us female? For the fact that society associates certain traits and proclivities with "maleness" and "femaleness"? It's not bad that biology has made males and females different (and biology has also supplied an extreme range in what is "male" and "female"); what's bad is that we have often have to suffer socially, politically, personally, economically, for being female and all that's associated with it (or for not fulfilling the expectations of what's associated with it). Let's fight that instead of bristling at the suggestion that testosterone levels affect behavior and development. (Which they really and truly do. A book I recommend is "The Man Who Would be Queen.")


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